For years, Facebook’s news algorithm has been a black box. While certain types of content were banned outright, it was simultaneously clear that other content was simply being demoted – its reach restricted. Facebook had been thoroughly opaque about just what content had been limited in distribution. But this week, Facebook finally revealed its Content Distribution Guidelines (CDGs). The CDGs demonstrate that conservative suspicions of content suppression for the last year are largely justified.
To understand just what the Facebook CDGs do, we must review a bit of recent history. The pressure brought to bear on Facebook since the election of 2016 by the media and members of the Democratic Party is extraordinary: since that election, the political Left has decided that Facebook’s newsfeed is responsible for the presence of conservative sentiment in the country, and has therefore targeted it. Their goal: to re-establish the legacy media monopoly that prevailed prior to the rise of companies like Facebook. As Kara Swisher, one of the journactivists who spends her days targeting Facebook’s free dissemination of information for destruction, wrote in June 2020, “[Mark] Zuckerberg has become – unwittingly or not – the digital equivalent of a supercharged enabler because of his enormous power over digital communications that affect billions of people.”
At the start, Facebook was unwilling to comply with such pressure. In 2019, Zuckerberg said at Georgetown University:
People no longer have to rely on traditional gatekeepers in politics or media to make their voices heard, and that has important consequences. I understand the concerns about how tech platforms have centralized power, but I actually believe the much bigger story is how much these platforms have decentralized power by putting it directly into people’s hands…We can continue to stand for free expression, understanding its messiness, but believing that the long journey towards greater progress requires confronting ideas that challenge us. Or we can decide the cost is simply too great. I’m here today because I believe we must continue to stand for free expression.
Finally, however, the pressure took its toll. Facebook’s new CDGs demonstrate that the company has been subject to a form of regulatory capture by the legacy media – that Facebook is moving ever-more-steadily toward precisely the sort of reinstated monopoly the legacy media so desperately seek.
According to Anna Stepanov, Director of Product Management, the goal of such CDGs is threefold:
- “Responding to People’s Direct Feedback”;
- “Incentivizing Creators to Invest in High-Quality and Accurate Content”;
- “Fostering a Safer Community.”
From the outset, it is clear that any such goals are completely fungible. The first goal, responding to feedback, can easily be twisted by motivated groups: monopolize the feedback mechanism by spamming comments, astroturfing reporting, and/or using journactivism to target particular types of content. The second goal, incentivizing creators to invest in high-quality and accurate content, explicitly moves the goalpost from punishing inaccuracy to subsidizing large companies with large budgets at the expense of smaller, analysis-based players in the space. The third goal, fostering a safer community, is consummately vague: safer for whom, and by what means?
Clarification of the measures used to accomplish these three goals demonstrate that conservative fears are entirely justified.
According to Facebook, the following categories of content have been downgraded:
“Domains With Limited Original Content”: Facebook seeks to crack down on content that contains “a large amount of content from other publishers that has been copied or only slightly modified, usually for the purposes of increasing web page volume and driving traffic.” Of course, every story posted on the internet is designed to drive traffic and increase volume. The real question is whether stories derived from other sources but analyzed from a conservative angle are included under “limited original content.”
“Fact-Checked Misinformation”: Facebook has downgraded “Content that has been debunked as ‘False, Altered, or Partly False’ by non-partisan, third-party fact-checking organizations who partner with Facebook, and have been certified by the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN).” As we have detailed expansively at Daily Wire, fact-checking organizations routinely bias the topics they select, outlets they target, and ratings they give. This standard is Facebook’s way of laundering its own political judgments via selected Left-wing third parties who masquerade as “non-partisan,” like Politifact, Snopes, or FactCheck.org. Facebook explicitly acknowledges that it downgrades posts that include content labeled “Missing Context” – the Left-wing fact-checkers’ way of suppressing true content that damages Left-wing causes.
“Inauthentic Sharing”: Facebook dings content that is shared by high-volume posters. According to Facebook, “link posts will be reduced when they are shared a high number of times and the majority of that sharing comes from accounts that recently and repeatedly engaged in hyper-sharing content relative to the average person who uses our services.” In other words, if Daily Wire links are often shared by high-enthusiasm users organically, that sort of engagement may be the precise trigger for link suppression.
“Links to Domains and Pages with High ‘Click-Gap’”: Facebook admits that it restricts “links to websites that receive a particularly disproportionate amount of their traffic directly from Facebook compared to the amount of traffic the websites receive from the rest of the Internet.” Facebook explains, “Our research has shown that extreme disproportion in traffic-source can be a sign that the domain is succeeding on News Feed in a way that doesn’t reflect the authority that domain has built on the internet more broadly.” This is a perfect example of regulatory capture by monopolistic legacy media. The legacy media, which have been established over the course of decades, had large pre-existing audiences during their oligarchic domination of the market. Start-ups have used Facebook to market to audiences dissatisfied with precisely those legacy outlets because Facebook has billions of users. By punishing outlets for receiving too much traffic from Facebook, Facebook is discriminating against precisely those start-ups that have relied on Facebook to compete. This is somewhat like a billboard agency deciding to reject advertisements from a start-up restaurant because too many customers, on a percentage basis, are being generated by the billboards rather than “organically,” through pre-existing brand loyalty. Such an arrangement would obviously benefit McDonald’s and KFC, not the new competitor.
“News Articles Lacking Transparent Authorship”: Facebook says that it is limiting reach for articles that “do not contain bylines or a staff directory with editorial staff information at the publisher level.” This is a bizarre standard, given the existence of wire services, editorial boards, and anonymous authors across American history. The credibility of information ought to be independent of its source – and in a day and age of targeting, it’s peculiar that Facebook would penalize authors who choose to write anonymously.
“Posts from Broadly Untrusted News Publishers”: Facebook states that it boosts content from “news publishers that our community rates as trusted,” and suppresses content from “publishers that our community broadly rates as untrusted in on-platform surveys.” It is completely unclear how such surveys take place, how the surveys avoid political gamesmanship, or why exactly it should be Facebook’s business as to whether a platform is “broadly untrusted.” Fox News is broadly untrusted by the Left – ought it be dinged? The New York Times is broadly untrusted by the Right – ought it be downgraded? The test of such trust would be whether people click on the links — which is precisely what Facebook seeks to foreclose. Again, this is regulatory capture by legacy media, whose control of a media oligarchy for several generations has led to unearned brand credibility in far too many cases.
“Unoriginal News Articles”: Facebook penalizes articles that do not include things like “source materials, significant analysis, news interviews, or the creation of original visuals.” All of this ignores the fact that legacy media routinely copy each other’s work, which is how lies can be laundered through several major media outlets over the course of a day. It also ignores that precisely the comparative advantage offered by conservative news is the angle on the news – that conservative media spends a good deal of its resources pointing out the false framing of the legacy media. Such framing is entirely discounted by this system. Furthermore, this requirement represents another boon to publishers who have already scaled up. If a start-up seeks to expand into broader reporting but use the dynamics of the internet in order to generate revenue to do so, Facebook undercuts that start-up before it can make the move. Lastly, Facebook doesn’t seem to care all that much about original news reporting if it concerns Hunter Biden’s laptop.
“Content Borderline to the Community Standards”: This includes “content that does not violate our covid-19 or vaccine policies, but which shares misleading or sensationalized information about vaccines in a way that would be likely to discourage vaccinations.” It would be fascinating to see Facebook apply this standard to the mainstream media, which routinely runs alarmist articles free of statistics about the dire danger of covid to children and the risks run by the vaccinated in the presence of the unvaccinated.
“Content Likely Violating our Community Standards”: Facebook will not wait for an actual community standards violation – if their systems predict a likely violation, “including but not limited to…posts with known hate terms,” content will be suppressed. It is unclear what such hate terms comprise. Given the Left’s newfound enthusiasm for subjective gender pronouns, it would not be a surprise to see content suppressed if it goes so far as to refer to Caitlyn Jenner as male, which he most certainly is.
Daily Wire has been one of the chief targets of the Left-wing journactivist movement, specifically because of our success on Facebook. Over the past year, we’ve seen our traffic capped in rather obvious ways. This has happened despite the fact that we have a thorough editorial process, employ a rather sizeable staff, and have corrected every error of fact imputed to us (while disputing fact-checkers who substitute their own political judgments for the facts). Despite our questions to Facebook about the obvious suppression, no answers were forthcoming.
Now we have the answers: legacy media have successfully selected the rules of the game to benefit themselves and damage those who compete with them.
So, what should happen next?
Facebook ought to offer an opt-out. Facebook’s standards with regard to accuracy are justifiable. Facebook’s attempts to “nudge” Americans in a direction of Facebook’s choosing might be at least mildly understandable were it transparent and optional. What Facebook should not do is use its own arbitrary and undeclared standards to set the standards for everyone. Freedom of speech ought not rely on the approval of a biased arbiter; the town square’s rules and standards can never be set by the favored majority in surveys. It’s time for Facebook to be truly transparent: let the people choose what they wish to see.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.